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Ramzan food special: Making a mean Kerala biryani

Give the Awadhi and Hyderabadi biryani a break this Ramzan by digging into a plate of Kerala meen (fish), chicken, mutton or beef biryani

The Kerala biryani, to put it simply, is pure symphony.

It was in Calicut, home to the famous Kozhikode biryani, that we realised this very simple fact of life. Our train back to Mumbai was delayed indefinitely and a biryani was suggested by the group to calm rising tempers and frayed nerves. To an unabashed biryani lover (and in our group, there were many) the dish is always just that — the perfect antidote to life’s many problems.

Kerala biryani  at Nawab Saheb restaurant, Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre Hotel, Powai
Kerala biryani at Nawab Saheb restaurant, Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre Hotel, Powai

It was love at first sniff. The fragrant mutton and rice dish was placed before us in a chembu (or vessel). The knife sunk deliciously into the meat, confirming the soft and tender consistency of the mutton. Someone cried sacrilege and we put the cutlery aside to dig into the dish with our fingers. The rice, the meat and the spices worked in perfect harmony and in minutes, our fingertips were smudged with masala and ghee, which we licked with glee.

One of the most popular kinds of Kerala biryani comes from Thalassery, a town in Kannur District. At Hotel Deluxe in Fort, the Thalassery biryani is served with pickle and papadam (no, not pappad). “We add raw onions, ginger, garlic and tomatoes and other ingredients to marinated meat,” says hotel manager Jay Prakash. The rice is cooked separately and later added to the meat masala on the stove. “The biryani is then cooked on dum, where the vessel is sealed with maida. In Kerala, the biryani is cooked on the wooden stove, which lends the food its own flavour. We place pieces of charcoal on top of the dish to heat it from above,” he explains.

Mumbai-based Sneha Nair, founder of Poppaddum, explains that one of the most distinguishing features of the Kerala biryani is its rice. “While Mughlai biryani uses basmati rice, the Kerala biryani uses Jeerakasala rice which is smaller but very fragrant. It also uses a lot of raisins and cashew nuts,” she points out. Also, adds Nair, instead of using spices in its powdered form, the Kerala biryani uses whole spices and almost no garam masala. A few hotels also prefer to use the local chicken instead of the broiler. “This is so that the rice is not stuck to the meat,” says Mashoor, owner of the popular Thalassery-based hotel, Paris.

The meen (or fish) biryani is exclusive to the region's cuisine. “No other cuisine includes fish in biryani,” explains Ananda Solomon, executive chef, Vivanta by Taj-President. “The authentic fish biryani uses Jeerakasala rice blended with peppercorn, cloves, cardamon, fresh bay leaf and ghee mixed perfectly in light fish stock,” he adds. Calicut-based Moplah cuisine expert Abida Rasheed attributes the uniqueness of the dish to the restrained use of spices. “The spices are subtle in the dish and enhance the taste,” she says, adding that fish biryani, made with seer fish and served with date chutney, is very popular. “In Kozhikode biryani (a namesake of the district), the rice is very soft. It is usually made at weddings, as the weight of the rice works on the meat which becomes tender,” she says. “At a wedding here, a biryani is a must,” she smiles.

Kerala biryani served here
Where: Hotel Deluxe, Fort
Call: 22836698
Where: Hotel Cochin Ark, Kharghar
Call: 22948621
Where: Meghalaya House, Vashi
Call: 27815532
Where: The Konkan Café, Vivanta by Taj – President, Cuffe Parade
Call: 66650978

Fish Biryani

For the fish gravy
>> 1 kg Seer fish
>> 1 kg onion
>> 100 gm chillies
>> 70 gm garlic
>> 70 gm ginger
>> 2 lemons
>> 1 cup coriander leaves
>> 1 cup yogurt

For the rice
>> 1 kg rice
>> 3 tsp ghee
>> 1 cup oil or dalda
>> 1 tsp turmeric powder
>> 1/2 kg tomato
>> Broken cashewnuts
>> Raisins
>> 4 glasses rice
>> 4 glasses water
>> Salt to taste

Method
>> Slice onions thinly. Heat oil/ 1 cup dalda and 1/2 cup ghee. Fry 250 gm onion till golden brown.
>> Fry cashewnuts and raisins and keep aside. Apply turmeric powder with salt and little water on the fish. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan and lightly fry the fish till it is half done. Keep aside.
>> Grind the remaining onion in a mixer with half cup water. In a heavy-bottomed vessel, heat 3 tbsp of oil. Add the onion mixture. Add ginger, garlic and chilli paste to the mixture. Add tomatoes, yogurt and salt. Cook till water evaporates.
>> Add the fried fish pieces, coriander leaves and juice of two lemons.
>> Heat ghee in a non-stick vessel and add chopped onion, 3 cardamoms and 3-inch pieces of cinnamon.
>> Add the washed rice (drain without any water). Fry the rice till it becomes a light white colour and a bit crispy.
>> Add boiled water and salt (1:2 ratio). Cook on high flame till the water is absorbed by the rice. Keep the rice covered for 10 minutes.
>> Sprinkle garam masala powder over the masala. Add the cooked rice in one layer. Add fried onion, nuts, raisins and a little garam masala powder. Finish in layers.
>> Take a napkin (radius of the vessel), dampen it with water and a little rose water. Put the biryani on dum for one hour with light heat from top
and bottom.

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